1) An operator records and verifies production data from an HMI, one of five located on the production floor. A historian database system maintains oatbase production data for reporting, trending and analysis.
2) Certified gluten free oats, the beginning raw material for SunOpta’s oatbase, racked, stored and waiting for production.
All photos courtesy of SunOpta
While SunOpta’s Alexandria facility doesn’t bottle oat milk on premises, it makes a product that bottlers use. Think of it as something like evaporated milk, but it’s hydrolyzed oats. “SunOpta oatbase is a liquid concentrate characterized by light brown, or tan color with a mildly sweet flavor characteristic of oat,” says Clark.
“The oatbase begins with whole, rolled oats that are broken down by an enzymatic process and result in an opaque oat-based liquid,” adds Clark. “We concentrate the liquid oatbase to reduce the cost of transportation and storage volume required for the oatbase.”
For all intents and purposes, the batch process (first located in the main building and now in the new facility) is continuous, so all product sampling and monitoring is for verification of the process and conditions (used to generate COAs). Each ingredient is metered individually into the batching system. “We rely upon in-process measures and control to drive consistency and reliability,” says Clark.
1) Aerial photo, taken by drone, of SunOpta’s new oatbase manufacturing facility in Alexandria, Minnesota.
2) SunOpta’s oat production system features state-of-the art automation and controls throughout each step of the process.
3) Knowledge transfer and training are key points of emphasis for SunOpta. In this photo, an operator is completing a self-directed training module using a one-point-lesson.
4) Finished oatbase is stored in one of two large silos until it is loaded into tankers. Pictured above, the transfer piping is contained in an overhead pipe bridge and fills the silos via a valve cluster contained in the load out bay shown in the background.
In the March episode of the Food Engineering podcast, editor-in-chief Casey Laughman discusses SunOpta’s expansion and automation project with Bryan Clark, VP, R&D Plant Based Food and Beverages, SunOpta.
With customer demand increasing so quickly, SunOpta sought to quadruple output of the existing system. But was it possible? Clark’s team looked at several possibilities.
He said that SunOpta initially focused on continuous improvement of the existing system—debottlenecking and also speed/throughput and CIP/sanitation optimization. “We had maximized the shifts and labor on the existing system prior to beginning the capacity expansion project.”
“We executed several smaller projects during 2019 to maximize production from the initial production system. In addition, we exited some smaller non-oatbases in our portfolio to create more capacity for oatbase,” adds Clark.
Overall, a capacity expansion project was essential to sustain current business and enable growth with both new and existing customers. And the steps taken to try and get more out of the existing system weren’t in vain. “We had the benefit, as we began to design the new process, of learning from the existing system—things like pain points and rate limiters that became design requirements for our new process and system,” says Clark.
Clark and his team realized it was time for some outside expertise—because the current four walls just could no longer provide ample space to make oatbase. Factors leading to this conclusion included:
If you’ve worked successfully with a supplier or an engineering firm over the years, you know the value of such an ongoing relationship. It was no different for SunOpta, which selected Dennis Group to look the situation over and come up with some solutions.
“We were certainly familiar with Dennis Group from a previous project in one of our aseptic processing and packaging plants,” says Clark. “Their reputation and portfolio of projects in the food and beverage space was a critical aspect of the decision process. The depth and breadth of expertise and skills Dennis Group possesses made them a true turn-key solution provider for our needs on this project (construction, process and automation).”
When asked how SunOpta concluded more space was necessary, Clark said the manufacturing plant was, and remains, a quite limited footprint—meaning it is full and maxed out. “We knew from the earliest stages of the project that we would require a ‘new’ footprint for this project.” Clark’s team contemplated repurposing the existing process area as well as taking over warehouse space for the capacity expansion project.
Minnesota’s climate creates a number of construction challenges. “Building things in Minnesota during winter and spring (and sometimes, fall) is ripe with potential challenges—heavy snowfall and deep frost lines, to name a few,” says SunOpta’s Clark.
SunOpta’s process starts with raw material receiving of super sacks of raw oats, which are pneumatically conveyed and metered into batching tanks where the oats are combined with water and other minor ingredients. The mixture moves to holding tanks where it is broken down via enzymatic conversion before the insoluble parts of the oats are separated. Thermal denaturation occurs before an evaporator concentrates the oat mixture to 40% solids. Finally, the product is chilled and prepared for load out in bulk.
Controls in the older system were somewhat disjointed, with individual controls on certain pieces of equipment, but there was no one point of coordinating control of the entire process, says Clark. To bring this process up to modern control standards, SunOpta’s team conferred with Dennis Group to iron out the wants and needs for the new system.
“In our initial process reviews, and after speaking with SunOpta Teams (operation and maintenance), there were a few areas that we wanted to improve with the new system,” says Josh Nichols, Dennis Group controls engineer. For example, they included:
Dennis Group worked with SunOpta team leads and demonstrated solutions to the areas identified below:
1. Incorporated Rockwell’s PlantPAx distributed control solution to provide standard process pop-ups and integrated security.
2. Worked with corporate IT to incorporate HMI user levels into preexisting operators’ Windows user accounts.
3. Deployed Rockwell Historian, FactoryTalk Asset Center and Metrics to display key process data, allow for review of previous production runs, and track both PLC and HMI changes.
4. Utilized ASi “control tops” for process valves and I/O Link for devices, which greatly reduced wiring (saved money), eliminated failure points, and allowed for device level monitoring.
Nichols and Kirsch outlined some other key points that the Dennis Group and SunOpta teams worked out for a successful project completion.
Sampling: Aside from normal flow, temperature and pressure feedback, direct inline product sampling was not achievable in the old system. The SunOpta Quality Team and DG identified and placed manual sample valves at key quality points throughout the process.
Process control: First, the key way to control the process starts with precise dosing of ingredients and consistent temperature and flow control, says Kirsch.
Training: A big reason for the rapid and successful startup of this system was the familiarity and ownership the operators had from the first day of product testing. Dennis Group and SunOpta leadership worked to develop thorough training documents and provide a virtual training environment of the system. The virtual environment was deployed prior to the start of system checkout, and allowed operators and maintenance to work through training documentation before system was installed.
There were still some points that required manual intervention in the old line (though much of it was automated), so Clark figured it a good idea to have CIP fully automated and integrated into the process control system. “We leveraged some of the current conditions (in the old system) to engage the OEMs to more fully automate CIP and eliminate much of the manual interventions in the new system/line.”
The new process has a dedicated CIP system, says Dennis Group’s Nichols. The CIP and process system were designed to maximize production by reducing production turn-around time. The system utilizes mixproof valves and segregated CIP circuits to switch from production to CIP as quickly as possible. This means that when upstream area is finished with production, SunOpta operators can immediately run CIP while downstream areas finish the production run. This allows the CIP essentially to chase the product through the system and allows production to start before the entire system is finished with CIP, adds Nichols.
“For example, as soon as one cook tank finishes processing, it can be CIPed while the other cook tank continues to finish,” says Kirsch. “The mixproof [valve] technology helps with system turnaround time, as production and CIP ‘overlap.’” Each sequence is fully customizable through the HMI system via the PIN charts. This gives the plant long-term control to optimize based on validation or update based on new chemistry used in the future.
While a typical CIP system run by a PLC with hard-coded instructions is difficult for even a programmer to modify, the new system gives control to the operators, says Kirsch. The new CIP system interface allows visibility into these settings as well as puts the control at the plant/sanitation/quality level. Finally, just like the process data, all of the CIP information is available within Historian and Vantage point.
Having actionable data was vital to the operation. Clark outlined the steps that were taken:
• A subsequent investment to obtain a “historian” database system.
• All data that is generated during production and sanitation are captured and stored, as well as real-time trending and reporting.
• Dashboards and standard reports to accomplish comparisons daily, weekly and monthly.
• In terms of adjusting for plant environmental conditions, the new system is located in a brand-new building with state of the art HVAC hardware and controls.
Historian and Metrics are the two main software systems that allow all personnel (operators, maintenance, quality, etc.) the ability to pull data from shift, day, production run, month and eventually years’ worth of data, says Nichols. There is a variety of displays on five strategically located monitors throughout the plant, which allow for different operators to use the data relevant to what they are trying to analyze. Besides the actionable data provided the system, an unexpected area of improvement was seen in terms of time for troubleshooting. These systems make it easy to compare data and track process changes.
While the control system doesn’t tie directly to ERP at this time, there are some “handshakes” that have been established, says Clark. For example, production demand comes from ERP, and that is entered into the control system for a production campaign. In addition, ingredients, raw materials and other consumables are scanned from inventory management system to meet the production demand for the campaign—and then reconciled.
Finally, Clark sees the future of the facility as bright. “We are very pleased with the new system and believe our best days remain in front of us. We are beginning to unlock the full potential of the new system as we begin 2021.”
But what becomes of the spent oats after exiting the process? Well, Clark already has it planned out.
“We are actually in the process of offering that as an ingredient. It’s a good source of protein and fiber—so I have some other folks on the R&D team that are turning those into all kinds of delicious products—anything from muffins, cookies, crackers to overnight oats,” says Clark. And believe it or not—we’re looking at some different fermentation applications.”
Perhaps oat-based stout, a favorite at microbreweries? “I’ve got another team in the lab brewing beer.”
But, Clark is determined to use all of the spent oats and have no waste. “We’re going to be zero-waste at some point in the future. It’s hard for me to say an exact date, but we are utilizing all the material.” FE